First World War: The story of the young soldier who returned from Canada to fight for his motherland
10:23 19 May 2014
Bertie Ruddock was whisked away from rural Suffolk to forge a better life across the Atlantic. But when freedom came under threat in Europe he returned to fight for his motherland. Steven Russell hears a story of potential and sacrifice
A couple of years ago. Gordon Ruddock has been out for a meal with neighbours to celebrate his 80th birthday. They finish the evening with a cup of tea at home. Martin, one of the friends’ sons, is over from Canada to visit his parents. As they all chat, he gets out his laptop and asks Gordon “Do you know of a Bertie Ruddock?”
Bertie had lived in Woolpit more than a century earlier – the village where Gordon‘s family had roots stretching back to at least the 1500s and was involved in brick-making and agriculture. Was there a connection?
“Never heard of him…”
Martin had come across information on the internet. He emails it to Gordon, who has a look at it when he goes home a little later. It takes a while for him to make sense of it all
and for the jigsaw pieces to fall into place.
This was the upshot: Bertram Cecil Ruddock was the uncle he never knew he had.
Bertie had been born to Gordon’s great-aunt Kate on June 11, 1892. She’d have been about 17 and her baby was born out of wedlock.
Not much is known of his early years, but Gordon suspects Kate might well have died young and that her son had floated around various relatives. Later – perhaps when he was a teenager; maybe earlier in his young life – Bertie was adopted by his uncle Frederick, Kate’s brother, and taken away from Woolpit, Suffolk and England to begin a new life in Canada.
It seems Frederick had gone out to Canada in the 1800s with brother Harry and been part of the mass of immigrants who helped build the ambitious Canadian Pacific Railway that would link the colony of British Columbia with eastern Canada and bring huge economic opportunities.
It was back-breaking work as the iron road was cut through virgin forest, rock and past lakes. Harry had been a horseman and Frederick would have been knowledgeable about agricultural work. They probably worked with horses to tow away trees cleared to make way for the railway.
Harry would return to live in Suffolk, but Frederick stayed and became very wealthy by the standards of the day.
Gordon reckons Frederick would have been about 17 when he went out to Canada, and Harry about six years older.
“Harry, my grandfather, I think went out to make some money to send home to the family and to build up a little nest-egg to eventually get out of Woolpit and come to Bury St Edmunds.” Harry would buy a pony and cart and become a kind of postman-cum-carrier in the area before realising that changing times meant prospects weren’t great in a very rural area.
He moved to Bury St Edmunds, working as a gardener for a brigadier-general.
Frederick, meanwhile, never forgot his roots in Woolpit and regularly travelled back to England – perhaps every couple of years – to visit relatives and old friends and catch up on news in his homeland.
“He used to come over on the steamships to Southampton, hire a big car and drive up to Woolpit. He might well have stayed at The Swan Inn. Because he’d made a lot of money, he helped out with all sorts of different things,” says Gordon.
“He probably realised there wasn’t going to be anything for this young man in Woolpit, particularly as many people were leaving the land and coming into towns.
“He must have thought ‘You’re not going to have much chance in the towns, even’. Industry was changing and becoming more mechanised and intense.”
For Bertie – probably unaware of his father’s identity, perhaps left without a mother, just one face among numerous Ruddock cousins and living in a rural community not flush with money – the chance to forge his own identity in a boom town abroad must have been irresistible.
We don’t know exactly when he sailed across the Atlantic to Vancouver, but we do know he became a fireman and joined a territorial army unit – the 72nd Regiment, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. (The Highlanders were established by members of Vancouver’s Scottish community in 1910.)
On April 8, 1915, Bertie enlisted in the 7th Canadian Expeditionary Force in New Westminster, British Columbia. “He must have seen all his friends joining and thought ‘I’ve got to do this’, and that was it,” muses Gordon.
Details held by the Canadian Great War Project about Private 428284 Ruddock make fascinating and poignant reading. We learn that the 22-year-old infantryman had a 37-inch chest that expanded by three inches when he breathed!
Other documents show he was 5ft 8in tall, had blue eyes, a fair complexion and light-brown hair.
And then this story – “a rags to riches” tale, to some extent – took a tragic turn.
Bertie was among the soldiers sent to the western front. April, 1916, saw his company being moved out of dugouts on the Ypres to Dickebusch road in Belgium, not that far from the French border.
They were having to move under shell fire.
On the morning of the 20th, Bertie was wounded in the back by shrapnel. Stretcher-bearers gave him immediate first-aid before he was put in an ambulance and taken to a casualty clearing station.
He died there four days later. The boy from Suffolk, who’d crossed and re-crossed an ocean, was only 23.
A classic white headstone, bearing a Canadian maple leaf, marks the spot where Bertie is buried at Llijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium. He is also remembered on the Woolpit war memorial.
So what did Gordon think when he learned about the story of Bertie, the uncle from out of the blue?
“The first feelings I had were ones of great sympathy, because he didn’t have much of a life here; and then, when he went to Canada, he had good opportunities. But what did he do? He sacrificed himself. The ultimate sacrifice. For his motherland.
“If he’d survived, he’d have gone back and his uncle would have ensured he had a good life.”
Growing up in Bury St Edmunds, where he was one of five sisters and four brothers, Gordon knew little of those Canadian adventures.
He thinks Frederick used to write to his nephew Edward – Gordon’s father – but little percolated down to the next generation. “To us, it was history. It all came out much later on. I’d say to my father ‘What about when we should have gone to Canada?’, and little bits would come out.”
That was a family anecdote relating to the Second World War, when Gordon and sister Peggy had offers to go to great-uncle Frederick’s as evacuees.
“My mother and father picked us two out. I was born in 1932, so I would have been about nine and my sister would have been about 14 or 15. We were waiting for documentation when there was a ship sunk with evacuees on it. Mother then said ‘No, you’re not going!’”
But, of Bertie, nothing until a couple of years ago – though Gordon says his father knew about this relative born out of wedlock. In those days, it probably wasn’t the done thing to talk about such matters, perhaps.
Funnily enough, Gordon and late partner Elizabeth went on a dream holiday to Canada in 1995 that included a five-day trip on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
They probably travelled through some of the areas his grandfather and great-uncle had helped carve out all those years ago. His ancestors had done all the hard work “and we sat there and enjoyed it!”
After national service, Gordon had joined British Rail. In the mid-1990s, he and Elizabeth decided to leave Chislehurst, in south-east Greater London, to live in his hometown.
Elizabeth had nine years in Bury St Edmunds, a town she loved, before dying of lymphoma in 2005. Today, Gordon lives close to the River Linnet.
He gazes at the documents, spread out on his dining table, that tell him everything he knows about Bertie.
“There are no medals here, but there’s patriotism – and that’s important. How many did that happen to? A lot.”